Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Marathoners: Whoops, Too Late

I’m a child of marathon runners, and a distance runner myself. But I have managed to keep the marathon bug at bay my whole life–even the half-marathon! Without going into detail, let’s just say I watched my parents train and race enough to decide, at a young age, that this marathon thing did NOT look like fun.

My folks, in the 1970s, finishing a Ride and Tie—a kind of cross-country marathon with horses, and mountains. (Only the finish looked fun to me!)

The Mate’s and my sons are the children of non-marathoning distance runners. And we thought that they had inherited that particular set of genes. But we thought wrong. This coming weekend, Son Two will run his first marathon, at age 26. Apparently marathoning can skip generations. (Thanks, Mom & Dad.)

Son Two finishing a 5k a few years ago

Actually, I’m fine with the whole thing. Son Two is, admittedly, a tad under-trained, but he’s smart enough to take it easy and even quit at the threat of injury. I also admire the way he got into the race: not the usual “I must test myself” stuff, but “yeah, a friend asked me to keep him company, so I said yes.” And honestly? I’m a little bit proud of the family tradition asserting itself after all.

Not only were my parents marathoners, my mom in particular was a very GOOD one. In the 1970s, when the running craze first peaked, she set a national age-group record at 39. And therein lies a tale.

See, Mom chose the Buffalo to Niagara Marathon as her first–can’t remember why; maybe its lack of giant hills. Because Niagara Falls used to be considered the classic honeymoon spot, and because honeymoons USED to be when nice young women lost their virginity, she was struck with the parallel between running one’s first marathon and…you know. So she wrote a little story about it and sent it to Runner’s World.

Would you believe they thought it was too risqué? (Can’t believe those editors missed the chance to call it “too racy.”) So it never got published (except by my folk’s local track club)…

…until now. Without further ado, in honor of marathoners and women everywhere, I present “Honeymoon At Niagara,” by Martha Klopfer:

They stood together by the railing and gazed at the falls. Entranced at the swirling ropes of falling water, she wondered how such continual motion could resolve itself into something so constant, so beautiful. She raised her eyes to his and he smiled and squeezed her hand. Softly her mind shifted from the mystery of Niagara Falls to that other mystery she was soon to encounter. She was aware of prickles of nervousness and wished she could shrug them off. It wasn’t that she was afraid or thought that she wasn’t ready. In fact, she had gone pretty far already, even if she hadn’t yet gone all the way. It was just that you couldn’t really know what it was like until you had done it.

She leaned closer against him and took comfort from his strength. It was easier for him because he had done it before, and besides, he was a man. What was she worrying about, anyway? Certainly, she had read enough about it. She knew all about the importance of timing, and things like that. He had told her that he had trouble holding himself back long enough, but she didn’t think she’d have that problem. She was more worried about just finishing. No! She didn’t want to start thinking about the mechanics now. The most important thing was to relax. After all, one was supposed to enjoy it.

She shivered in spite of herself, and he put his arm around her and suggested that they go back to the motel. This would not be the time to catch a cold, would it? She heard the nervousness in his laugh and felt a rush of love tinged with amusement. His prior experience didn’t make him immune to the jitters either!

At dinner it was even more obvious to her that he was as nervous as she was. They talked about all sorts of unrelated things, but he was playing with his spaghetti more than eating it. Their half-filled plates were carried away. No doubt the waiter was used to that in Niagara Falls, she thought. It amused her, knowing what hearty appetites they usually had.

Back in their own motel room, they quickly got ready for bed. She suggested watching TV for awhile, because it really was so early. She was glad enough to snuggle against him in bed, but she still sought the distraction of their electronic companion. Was she really ready, she wondered?

Then, firmly decisive, he reached over and turned out the TV and the light. Tenderly he kissed her, then said goodnight, and rolled over. They should both try to get a good night’s sleep before the Marathon tomorrow.

Note: She was 4th of 17 women, 125th of 420 starters overall, in a time of 3 hours, 22 minutes, 12 seconds; age 39. First marathon, and a North American age record.

Notice that last bit? Told you she was good, didn’t I?

Mom still runs. Here she is in 2015, celebrating her 80th birthday with a mile on the track.

Why couldn’t I have inherited those legs???

So here’s to you, son. And you, Mom & Dad. And to all of y’all with more grit than me, doing what’s hard for whatever reason, because you want to test yourself, because it’s there, or just because a friend asked you to. Thanks for your example. Now, GO!!!

Return to Kiwiland, Final Installment: Why New Zealand? The Coast to Coast Triathlon

And finally…Reason #2 why I’m headed back to New Zealand after 20 years: for a triathlon.

Not to run. To observe. To take notes. The next novel I’m planning is set in New Zealand, and this triathlon plays a major role. Because this is no ordinary triathlon. This is the Coast to Coast.

This. (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

This. (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Kiwis take the phrase "cross-country" literally. (courtesy coasttocoast.com)

Kiwis take the phrase “cross-country” literally. (courtesy coasttocoast.com)

This race spans the skinniest part of the South Island, Kumara to Christchurch–243 kilometers (about 180 miles) of running, biking, and–no, not swimming–whitewater kayaking. Here’s the course:

Logistics might be complex. Ya think? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Logistics might be complex. Ya think? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Oh, did I forget to mention it crosses a mountain pass?

Thanks to Kiwi friends, I’ve been invited to “pit crew” for a woman who’s doing the triathlon. I’m going to grab her bike or hold her wetsuit or whatever she needs, all while soaking up the sights and sounds and scents and trying not to make a pest of myself.

For years, the race was sponsored by a beer company. Now its sponsor is Kathmandu, an outdoor gear company that seems much better suited. But notice how little else I know about the Coast to Coast! I’m excited to learn how much more I have to learn.

Like...how do they keep from breaking their ankles in the first kilometer? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Like…how do they keep from breaking their ankles in the first kilometer? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Also thrilled that I don’t have to run/ride/paddle the damn thing myself. The elites take about 13 hours to finish. The woman whose crew I’m joining expects to take 15-16 hours.

Funny story:  when I first chatted with “my” triathlete, she asked, “So, this American athlete and her coach…will they be joining you as well?”

It took me a moment to process this. Then: “Oh, no! They’re fictional. I mean, they’re what the book’s going to be about. So, no, they won’t be coming with me.”

Except they will, of course. In my head. Assessing their fictional future.

So if you’re reading this–cheers! The next time you’ll hear from me will be in mid-February, when our Great Kiwi Re-adventure is behind us. Till then, keep reading and writing and running or whatever it is you do. Hug your family. Talk with a stranger. Be well.

 

 

Secret To a Happy Life: Choose Your Parents Wisely

Wish I could take credit for that idea. Wish I could take credit for my own blessed life. But I know better. There’s Providence, luck, fate–and then there are good role models and good genes. My mom gave me both.

Today (June 3) is her 80th birthday. 60 years ago this month she married my dad. I’m blessed to have both parents very vigorously in my life. But today is Mom’s day.

My mom is psyched to turn 80: a new age group for her to dominate in track! Here she is, just a few days ago, getting ready for the 80-and-up mile:

What I want to be when I grow up

What I want to be when I grow up

When she first married my dad back in 1955, Martha Smith was no athlete. The family joke is, she was probably in the worst shape of her life at age 20, and she looked terrific. Raising three kids, starting a farm and co-founding a school toughened her up, but then a new path opened. Some time in the late 1960s, my dad discovered distance running and immersed the whole family in it. And Martha Smith Klopfer discovered a hidden talent.

She was FAST. And tough. And competitive. At age 45, she held the national age group 10k record. But she also excelled at the marathon, with a personal best of 3:07. And she did all this with no team to support her, no coach but her husband, and a full-time job of raising teenagers, running a farm, and helping to guide the school she had helped to found.

Lest you imagine from her athletic creds that my mom’s a driven, Type-A personality–nothing could be further from the truth. More like “Type B…or, no, maybe C…but then again, B is nice, I could see B…” Time has always been a fluid substance for her. When I was in high school, the words, “I’m just going out to the barn for a few minutes,” spoken in late afternoon, became code for, “So someone else might want to think about fixing dinner if you want to eat before eight.”

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that my mom’s also a poet. A very good poet. Here’s one of my favorites, written about something that happened between her own mother and the Guatemalan gardener she practically adopted:

 

Little Bird

 

I think I washed the windows too clean.

The little bird saw straight

through the living room and right out

the other side to the sky.

He flew fast, like a pelota, hit the glass,

fell to the ground and was still.

A drop of blood came out near his long beak.

I picked him up. Pobrecito.

He weighed nothing and did not move.

I wish that I had left the window dirty.

 

But I want to do good work for Mrs. Smith.

She is kind to me, tells me to sweep the patio

or trim bushes, even when they don’t need it.

I don’t want her to see this dead bird.

It would make her sad.

Quickly, I get the garden trowel,

dig a small hole under the Pyracantha,

cover the bird with earth and leaves.

I wipe the window clean again.

 

Once my mother came to visit.

Mrs. Smith helped pay for the flight.

She practiced Spanish with my old sick mother,

both of them laughing.

Later, I could not go to Guatemala

to help bury my mother.

My father and brothers had been killed.

The same people also wanted

me in a shallow grave.

 

Mrs. Smith comes out of the house.

“Good job, Manuelito,” she says.

I say, thank you Mom.

She thinks I call her “Ma’am,”

but she is my California mom.

She has made tamale pie for lunch.

She says she likes to cook for me,

though she doesn’t cook much

since Mr. Smith died.

 

We sit down to eat at the patio table.

Something moves under the Pyracantha.

I jump to my feet.

“Look! It’s still alive!”

I tell her how the little bird hit the window,

how I thought it was dead and buried it.

I dig it up and brush it off and lay it in her hand.

 

The little bird blinks and ruffles its feathers.

Mrs. Smith says,

“He was only stunned.

I’ll keep him safe until he can fly again.”

I love that poem. But poetry’s not Mom’s only art. She’s also a weaver. Wish I had a picture of one of her weavings to share, but you’ll have to imagine the gentle interplay of color and shape inspired by natural scenes.

Then there’s Carolina Friends School, about which I’ve written before. Click here to read about how she helped to found North Carolina’s first integrated school.

All in all, my mom has given me a good dozen reasons to look at her as a role model; I’ve only mentioned the most obvious here. But chief among those is Mom As Athlete. I mean, look at those legs! Here she is, biking down a mountainside in Greece at the tender age of 78:

Wheee!

Wheee!

So, to sum up: Character: check. Talent: check. Athleticism: check. Oh, and terrific genes, ’cause did I mention HER mom lived to one hundred and three?

So, yeah. Can I pick a parent or what? Pretty proud of myself for that.

Now’s your chance to brag on your own mom or dad or Significant Elder in your life. I love when you share.

 

My Goddaughter the Triathlete: Why I Can’t Wait For the Fourth of July

Last year I wrote about my “godkid,” Allison Snow. My theme was the word itself, the concept. Today I want to write about Allison herself—or Al, as I call her. I’m busting with pride.

I first met Al when she was a student in my 10th grade Honors English class. She was a competent, but not a terrific writer; a careful, but neither avid nor outstandingly insightful reader. In short, I enjoyed her as a student, but would never have identified her as one of my faves. One snippet did catch my attention, however: she wrote her “Turning Point in my Life” essay about the death of her father when she was twelve. I did the math and realized that she was only fourteen, a full year younger than most of her peers.

The following year, I and five of my braver colleagues started a pilot “school-within-a-school” half-day program called International Business and Global Studies. Project-based, with a fully-integrated curriculum and student-centered learning (are you glazing over yet?), IBGS attracted students who were bored with traditional classrooms. To my surprise, Al signed up and became an IBGS star. I still remember Al’s semester presentation on Greece, which included artifacts from Tacoma’s Greek Festival, which she had attended, on a weekend.

Even more surprising, Al became a cheerleader. That serious young woman, shrieking “Card-inal Pow-er!”— really? Should’ve tipped me off: in her quiet way, Al made her own decisions about what course to pursue, regardless of expectation. Motivated. Purposeful.

Her own family learned this during Al’s senior year. I was on leave in New Zealand (let’s hear it for spouses with paid sabbatical!), and Al announced to her mom that she would like her graduation present early: a plane ticket. Then she got on the school’s office email (not having her own—remember those days?) and asked me for permission to come visit.

“A cheerleader?” my husband asked. “For ten days?” (Not that he was being judgmental or anything.) Little did he know that visit would turn into three weeks.

Al mtn.

Once Al arrived, she realized how ridiculously short her trip was for coming such a distance. In a super-long-distance call, she talked her mom into letting her change her return ticket. She used that time to explore most of the South Island with us, babysitting our young boys. By the time she left, she was family…

…except in one regard. Although fit, Al was never what I’d call an athlete. Yes, I KNOW cheerleaders have to be in good shape, but the mentality is different: they don’t train like competitive athletes do. Although The Mate and I had mostly retired from racing, we still considered our daily workout the same way we considered meals: essential. I don’t remember Al ever offering to go for a jog with me. Motivation and purpose didn’t seem to go there.

Fast-forward ten years: Al, now a young teacher (like me—I know, right?!) decides to try triathlon. The results: one and three-quarter hours. 167th in her age group. Proud of herself.

Aha. Motivated. Purposeful. Here’s what happened next:

In 2007 and ’08, more Triathlons. Her times come down. 2009, three of ‘em. 2010: four.

In 2012, Al becomes an Ironwoman, in a race that took 12 ¾ hours.

And in 2014?  Personal Best by thirty minutes in a half-Ironman. Thirty minutes! And last week: First place female.

Al winning

I’m leaving out a whole huge category of pride here, over Al’s career as a star elementary school teacher. Today I’m celebrating Al the Athlete, entirely self-created.

When I became a semi-elite runner, I had an athletic family pushing me, college coaches, a track club. Al has a coach now, and a team, but only because she went out there and got them, all on her own.

On July 4, I’m going to run our little island’s 5k Fun Run, the only “racing” I do these days. Al’s going to run it with me…and she’s going to kick my butt. And I can’t wait.

 

 

Fitness In Your Eighties: Keeping Up With My Parents

We just got back from vacation, and my husband and I are exhausted.

Not from the long flight back from Greece, although that took its toll. (I swear, jet lag should be declared an illegal drug: Just Say No.) We’re exhausted from trying to keep up with my parents.

It’s my own fault. This whole Cyclades Islands bike tour was my idea. “Let’s invite my parents,” I said. “We always have so much fun doing athletic things with them, and they won’t be able to do this kind of thing forever.” (Plus my mom is super laid-back and my dad grabs every check and pays for everything if you let him is super-generous.)

Mom

We are tired out from trying to keep up with Mom and Dad on all those hilly bike rides. Did I mention that my mom is 78 and my dad is 83?

They’ve always been terrific athletic role models, WAY ahead of their generation. My dad, a zoologist, got into distance running in the mid-1960s as the result of a near-death experience being chased down a beach by a bull elephant seal (at least the way he tells it, and hey, it’s his story, right?). My mom and my sisters got into running soon after. I wasn’t a huge fan, but I got into it in due time. (For more on this,  https://gretchenkwing.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/ill-put-a-gird…ok-maybe-years/

Mom became a running star almost immediately. Not that many women over 40 were running in the early 1970s, let alone racing, and mom was FAST. When she turned 45, she owned the national 10k record. Her picture graced the cover of WomenSports magazine in 1975–a journal that, sadly, did not survive into the 80s. Dad was never quite as competitive, relative to other men, since there were more of them. But he embraced each new age group eagerly, ready to face down his rivals.

P

Together, they dominated the roads of North Carolina, then branched out around the country, running marathons, 10ks, 5ks, plus one and two-milers on the track. They even attended the World Masters track championships. And they cleaned up annually at the Levi’s Ride and Tie, a crazy cross-country endurance race involving teams of 2 people plus a horse. (My sisters and I got free Levi’s all through high school thanks to their prizes. 🙂 )

These days they’ve slowed down–just a little. Mom’s had a tough time with soft-tissue injuries and spends more time biking, riding, and doing weights and pilates than running. Dad still runs a couple times a week, and usually bikes the six miles to his lab, but he’s considering buying an electric tricycle to help him get home when fatigue finally catches up to him.

As if!

Not only did fatigue not catch up to him on our bike trip, the rest of the tour members hardly could. My husband and I kept waiting for Mom or Dad to ride in the sag wagon that followed our bike tour. Never happened. They rode every hilly, windy kilometer.

Mom2

So I guess I just want to say Thanks. Thanks for being such great role models, not just for me and my sisters, but for everyone who sees you riding past, grey beard and grey braid flying in the wind. Thanks for showing the rest of us that a healthy old age may depend in part on good luck and good genes, but it DEFINITELY depends on hard work–work that doesn’t stop when the joints get creaky.

And yeah–thanks for the genes too.

P and M

How about you? Did you inherit any kind of fitness regimen from your parents, or were they your examples of how NOT to live? How do you find a way, in your super-busy lives, to model fitness for your children? Let us hear!

“I’ll Put a Girdle ‘Round the Earth in 20 Minutes”–ok, Maybe Years…

24,901 miles. 40-some-thousand kilometers. That’s one big girdle!

Puck (in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) got the job done in 20 minutes, seeking out that famous love-potion flower.

(Original image from NYC ballet, courtesy dancetabs.com)

(Original image from NYC ballet, courtesy dancetabs.com)

But I get bragging rights. I’ve run around the world THREE TIMES. I’m willing to bet all distance runners do this sooner or later:

  • calculate our weekly mileage, allowing for known variation over the years
  • multiply that number times the number of weeks in a year
  • subtract a small percentage for illness and injury
  • multiply the total times the number of years we have been running

...Voilá! Le grand total: 75,000 miles and counting.

My secret? Not marathons. NO WAY. Never ran one of those, never plan to. Watched both my parents training for ’em as I grew up, and that cured me of any desire to suffer ridiculously for three-plus hours run one.

No super-long runs either. The longest races I’ve ever run were good ol’ 10ks (6.2 miles); the longest training run, 15 miles, and that only once.

Nope. All I’ve done is run, mostly 3-6 miles, usually 5-6 times a week…for a long, LONG time. I’ll be 52 next month. I started running when I was 7 1/2. (You do the math; my brain is tired from all that mileage calculation.)

It sure wasn’t my idea to start running as a 3rd grader. My dad, a scientist, was one of the original Health Nuts of the late 1960s, and when he learned that running improved your cardiovascular system, it therefore followed that NOT running would lead to an early grave, right up there with eating hot dogs. So we became a family of runners, by paternal decree.

I hated it.

My sister and I used to run down our country road in North Carolina for our little 2-milers, sneak into the woods, check our watches till enough time had elapsed, then run home, panting heavily. Let’s just say I was no Zola Budd, bounding around like an eager gazelle.

But…I was fast. Put me in a couple of races…I beat people. I beat GROWNUPS. I loved that. I loved medals and ribbons and later, trophies. I kept running, and training, but for the wrong reason: ego.

Except that ego kept me in the sport. And, like early religious training, that depth of immersion causes a certain amount of internalization–swallowing the river water in which you’re baptized, so to speak. My river was FITNESS. And 45 years later, I am truly grateful to my dad for doing that to me.

Sure, I had my years of rebellion. In college I walked off the track team…in the middle of a race (not proud of that). In my 20s I quit again, gained weight, decided I liked myself better as a runner, came back to it more seriously than ever. I also gave up racing in my late 30s, tired of fighting a painfully persistent hamstring injury. But now, in my 50s, I still run.

Not every day. These days, in fact, my mantra is “A mile’s a mile.” That means I can walk or hike or jog at any pace and it still counts as mileage. It just might take longer. (OK, strolling through a museum doesn’t count. Note to self: look up WHY STROLLING THROUGH A MUSEUM IS SO FRIGGIN’ EXHAUSTING EVEN WHEN IT ISN’T BURNING ANY CALORIES.) I’ve even worked out my own cool little equation to compare miles on a bike to running miles.

PCT4

Because, yup–I’m still counting. Workin’ on that fourth girdle.

How about your own sports history? Were you raised with a sport that saw you through? Have you had to invent yourself as an athlete? Do you have a sport or fitness activity that you rely on every day? What does that sport do for you? Let us hear!